Letter From Berlin

Letter From Berlin

Germany has problems–but on healthcare and gun control, it’s way ahead of the States.


My German friends here are bewildered by the resistance to healthcare reform in America. They just don’t get what the fuss is about. After all, thanks to Bismarck, that notorious red, Germans have had some version of national health insurance since 1884. The current system contains some of the very features that have driven Americans to throw themselves into the tea. It’s mostly public–about 90 percent of the population is in the government system, with about 10 percent, mostly the wealthy and the self-employed, covered by private insurance. There’s an individual mandate: you have to be covered, just the way, as my friend Barbara put it, you have to have insurance for your car. Coverage is not cheap, about 15 percent of your salary, but your employer pays nearly half, and there are government subsidies for low-income workers. Sound familiar? Do companies pass their payments on to you in the form of lower wages (or higher prices)? Probably a little bit, said Vera, but it is well worth it. I’ll say: Germany has one of the best healthcare systems in the world, and it costs a lot less than ours–10.7 percent of GNP in 2005, versus our 15.2 percent. My husband has visited doctors and dentists here, and found them both excellent and amazingly accessible. Why, my friends wonder, would Americans not want something like it?

Perhaps it is because a government powerful enough to give us healthcare insurance would be strong enough to… take away our guns? The American obsession with guns is another thing that just looks weird here. German gun laws are strict. Permits are barred to people with histories of violent behavior or addiction to drugs or alcohol: to get a hunting license requires taking a challenging course on weapons and wildlife and passing a stiff exam (many fail); don’t even think about carrying that licensed gun in public unless it is unloaded and in a locked container. As for the political value of the Second Amendment in defending the Republic, the idea that homeowners could hold off a tyrannical government with their individual weapons is bound to look ridiculous to people who have actually experienced fascism. By the time the government is able to put you in a concentration camp, it has overwhelming force behind it–and much, if not most, of the populace as well. Pro-gun people like to use the example of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, but the thing about that noble act of defiance is that’s all it was: the Nazis smashed the resistance and shipped the survivors off to Treblinka in no time. Because of that history, it’s clearer here that if you want to preserve democracy, you don’t need a lot of do-it-yourselfers clomping about in the woods; you need a strong civil society, including respect for elections that don’t happen to go your way.

Speaking of elections, if you believe opinion polls, roughly a third of all Americans regard Barack Obama as a flaming communist Muslim from Kenya, and 14 percent suspect he is the Antichrist himself. But here’s a reality check: if Obama were a German politician, he would fit comfortably somewhere between Chancellor Angela Merkel and her free-market coalition partner Guido Westerwelle. That’s because the whole electoral spectrum here is several degrees to the left of the US range; Westerwelle, a Free Democrat, is the only politician who campaigns on the neoliberal platform espoused by American politicians of both parties: competition, lower taxes, mistrust of government, the evils of welfare, the magic of the market and the virtues of making lots of money. In February he shocked the nation by comparing the welfare state to the "decadence" of the late Roman Empire. In the United States, such statements barely make the news. In fact, in the United States the only thing that would shock anyone about Westerwelle is that he’s openly gay. As for Merkel, it’s true that Germany is in some ways a more sexist society than the United States, with ordinary life still arranged around stay-home mothers: Sunday store closings; school days that end at lunchtime; working mothers derided by their neighbors as cold, cruel Rabenmütter (raven mothers); and women trapped on the lower rungs of the professions (only 13 percent of German professors are female). But you have to acknowledge that Germany has us beat in female political representation. It’s not just Merkel: 32.8 percent of MPs are women.

Like the rest of Europe, Germany has problems galore. Unemployment is high; immigration, while low by US standards, has inspired xenophobia and ultranationalism; there have been big cutbacks in social programs, including healthcare and education. But as an American, I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to experience a politics in which "welfare" is not a dirty word and elections don’t revolve around people who think the world is 10,000 years old and can’t even spell the "N-word" they plaster on their placards and posters.

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Since 1997, Nation readers have given generously to Vacation From War, a project of the Committee for Fundamental Rights and Democracy, a German human rights group. Originally started to give Bosnian children from war zones and high-conflict areas two weeks of peace, mutual friendship and summertime fun, Vacation From War has expanded to include meetings of young people from Israel and Palestine. Imagine ninety Israeli youths and ninety Palestinians living together under one roof for two weeks and, through mutual listening and debate, getting to understand one another’s perspective, and to enjoy and value one another’s company. Many go on to become activists working for peace and justice–I recently met two graduates of the sessions in Berlin and was blown away by their energy, dedication and smarts. A donation of $150 makes you a "godparent." Send checks, payable to Vacation From War, to me at The Nation, 33 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003, and I will forward them. More information at vacation-from-war.com.

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